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Community Action Network outlines unmet needs

Thursday, February 14, 2002 by

Council Member Raul Alvarez today will propose that the city up the ante on a tax anticipation note to stem the rising tide of the county’s unmet social service needs.

The City Council was already set to consider approval of a tax anticipation note that would raise $3.57 million for the city to cover unanticipated public safety expenses. The note is equivalent to three-quarters of a cent of the city’s tax rate, Alvarez said. That may change after a Community Action Network (CAN) presentation at yesterday’s work session that predicted $1.8 million in additional social service needs due to the downturn in the economy and the reduced giving in a post-September 11th economy.

Eileen Oldag of Caritas, who served on a CAN subcommittee that studied the increasing community needs, called the combination of increased unemployment and decreased giving “a cruel conspiracy of conditions.” In Austin, working poor now compete with the recently disenfranchised for scarce available resources, Oldag said. Even before the downturn in the local economy, an estimated 105,000 people in Travis County lived at 200 percent below the federal poverty guidelines. That means almost one in five families lives on an income of $17,050 or less each year.

Alvarez told his colleagues he was ready to propose an even cent for the tax anticipation note. That would raise $4.8 million. Half of the additional $1.2 million, Alvarez said, should be set aside in the city’s contingency fund. The other half would pay for social service needs. The $600,000 infusion would take care of a third of the expenses estimated by CAN.

CAN estimates that almost 4,000 families in Austin are currently in a financial crisis. The $1.8 million figure is only intended to meet immediate emergency needs such as utility and rent assistance, food and clothing, Oldag said. Long term, social service agencies have estimated it will take $13 million to get all those families back on their feet. Long-term strategies include a comprehensive tracking of social services to families across the various agencies to eliminate any duplication of efforts among them.

Former Asst. City Manager Betty Dunkerley told In Fact Daily that a tax anticipation note is a good short-term instrument to use when a government entity is faced with a significant funding shortfall. It raises money quickly at a low interest rate and is paid back quickly. The City Council could choose to pay the note off over the next year or roll the tax anticipation note payments into the city’s debt service or operating tax rate.

“A lot of school districts use them to live on while they wait on tax dollars to arrive,” Dunkerley explained. “What I liked about it is it gave the Council a whole lot of flexibility.”

The Community Action Network has proposed a community-wide initiative that would include both public and private donations. Mayor Gus Garcia told his colleagues the city was in a crisis situation. He added that he didn’t know whether the Council should address the problem through a tax anticipation note or some other initiative, but the problem was a real one that needed to be addressed.

“We want to make sure that the people who live here can do it with as much dignity as we can provide,” Garcia told the Council during a brief discussion of the Alvarez proposal.

Travis County has already kicked in $290,000 from its own contingency fund. City Manager Jesus Garza returned to a theme that had emerged in his discussion of the hospital district issue. He asked Fred Butler of CAN how much Travis County had contributed to the funding shortfall, given that the county had saved more than $1 million in health and human service expenditures when Del Valle was annexed into the city.

Butler said no firm deal had been worked out with the county, but County Judge Sam Biscoe had offered a commitment to share in some of the funding shortfall. Garza clearly wanted the county to match the city’s $600,000 commitment. Garza agreed to draft Alvarez’s terms as a possible amendment to be considered at today’s Council meeting.

Council could discuss matter until March 21

The Austin City Council got a preview Wednesday of some of the potential complications involved in putting a charter amendment for single-member districts on the May 4th ballot.

While much of the discussion so far has focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the single-member district system, Assistant City Attorney John Steiner told Council members they still had several other issues to consider, the first of which would be the mechanics of actually drawing the new districts.

A previous Charter Revision Committee, which did extensive study of several different proposals, included recommendations for the process of drawing new districts in its report. That group suggested the Council appoint an independent body to draw the lines, giving members strict instructions to disregard protection of incumbents, political affiliation and race. However, Steiner said, such instructions would run counter to those of the U.S. Justice Department, which will have to approve the new districts. “What these recommendations are getting to . . . is to take the politics out of redistricting,” Steiner said. “But you have to remember that redistricting is probably the most political act that there is. The courts have recognized that redistricting is a purely political exercise, except for when it intrudes on equal protection issues.”

The Voting Rights Act, adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1965 and amended in 1982, prohibits cities from drawing district lines that would dilute minority-voting strength. “While I understand that the sense of the community has moved away from single-member districts as a remedy for racial inequities,” Steiner said, “the only thing the Justice Department will look at under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is the effect that the lines will have on the voting strength of racial and linguistic minorities.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher said that while he appreciated the recommendations of the previous charter committee about the redistricting process, he didn’t believe they were practical. “The recommendations on how to draw the lines seem to come from a noble purpose, but they seem to be a little naive,” Slusher said. “I think we’ve had things put in our charter that come from a very naive perspective . . . like saying ‘We’re limiting contributions to 100 dollars . . . That way, nobody can get any big money.’ Now, we can hardly get any small money for a campaign. That has damaged democracy in this city.”

Should the Council decide to put single-member districts on the ballot, members would also have to decide on the timing of drawing the new districts, along with the transition process for putting them into effect. While it would probably not be possible to draw the new districts before the May 4th election, Council Member Will Wynn said voters should be given some information about how it would take place. “As part of the ballot language, we could outline what type of independent body draws the maps and what the deadline would be,” Wynn said. The Council would also have to consider whether to delegate final authority for the new district lines to the redistricting group and come up with a process for putting them into effect. That could involve either phasing them in over several years as Council seats come up for election or truncating the terms of current Council members, allowing for one election to fill all of the newly created single-member seats.

Whether voters will eventually have the option to vote on single-member districts remains to be determined. Mayor Gus Garcia said he would be in favor of the plan to promote geographic diversity. “Many areas of this community do not have representation,” Garcia said. “And some have never had representation. If we’re going to have an attitude of inclusion in the city, we need to make sure all areas of the city have their representative.” Wynn has been the most vocal Council member supporting the proposal, and Council Member Raul Alvarez has said he would like to put the issue to a vote. Council Members Danny Thomas and Slusher, however, expressed some skepticism. “I’m interested in a mixed system,” Slusher said, “although I haven’t totally closed the door to voting on a single-member system.” Thomas also said he would favor a system with a mixture of at-large and single-member districts. Council Member Beverly Griffith also has reservations about single-member districts. “I’m not sure what we ought to do right now,” Griffith said. “What I am sensing is no groundswell . . . it seems to be low demand in terms of making a change and low demand for wanting the opportunity to vote.”

Although the Council has until March 21st to set the ballot for the May 4th election, Steiner suggested that members reach some consensus prior to that date so the exact language could be drafted in time for the Council’s March 21st meeting. If a single-member district system is placed on the ballot and approved by voters, Steiner said the districts would likely need to be drawn by the end of summer in order to be submitted to the U.S. Justice Department for “pre-clearance” for use in 2003. The Council also has several other suggested charter amendments to consider. Those will be discussed at the Feb. 27th work session.

Neither will have vote, but may ask questions

The Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Implementation Commission (RMMAIC) has won its seat at the table when the evaluation committee takes its look at the two finalists for master developer.

In a memo sent to the advisory commission this week, Sue Brubaker, director of the Purchasing Office and Sue Edwards, director of Environmental Services invited two members of the implementation commission to join the evaluation team. Neither Chair Jim Walker nor Commissioner Donna Carter will be able to vote when plans are evaluated on March 6, but the two RMMAIC members will be able to ask questions.

“There is a much higher chance that we’ll be able to get input to this,” Walker told his fellow commissioners on Tuesday night. “I’m not near as worried.”

Walker thanked staff members Dave Kreider and Pam Hefner for efforts to address the concerns of the commission. The development teams will present their plans to the RMMAIC on the evening of March 5 and to the 15-member Evaluation team on March 6. The evaluation team’s recommendation will pass through the City Manager’s office and be placed on the Council agenda in April or May.

A summary of the business proposals of the Mueller Redevelopment Team and Catellus Development Corp. will be handed out to commissioners a week before the March meeting. Between now and then, according to the memo, ROMA and Economic Planning System consultants will review the proposals, evaluating issues such as land use, phasing, character, cost analysis, infrastructure phasing and funding strategies.

Commissioners also received an unweighted list of evaluation criteria at their meeting. The three areas of evaluation are project concept and strategy, financial proposal and management proposal. Subheads included broad concepts such as, “quality of affordable housing strategy,” “well-developed marketing/tenanting strategy,” “public/community interaction” and “ability to provide corporate guarantees.”

The memo left some unanswered questions for RMMAIC members, such as: How would commissioners make sure their questions were addressed in the March 6 session? Would the group be inclined to make an endorsement of one proposal over another? Should commissioners schedule additional meetings to analyze comments?

With such an important juncture only a couple of weeks away, and after so many months of anticipation and preparation, the meeting took on the air of a late-night crib session before an important final exam. Commissioners agreed they would stay late into the night on March 5—Walker said he would bring the coffee—to prepare for “Evaluation Day.”

At that daylong meeting, neighborhood leader Walker and architect Carter will sign a non-disclosure form that will preclude them from sharing any of the financial details that will be presented to the city’s evaluation team. Walker said the commission could choose to call a special meeting after the evaluation to determine whether the RMMAIC should endorse either of the developers.

Commissioners Matt Moore and Eileen Saling expressed doubts whether the commission, lacking the financial particulars of the deal, could make a proper recommendation at all. One alternative may be to call a meeting the Tuesday before the Thursday City Council vote in order to review the agenda packet material presented to the Council on the recommendation. No decision was made on calling that meeting.

Commissioners and staff also have reached an agreement to try to draft some type of protocol to outline when the RMMAIC will be consulted on plan amendments. Kreider and Walker agreed that commissioners don’t want to get bogged down on details such as what color paint is used on a building, but the commission does want to have some input into major decisions such as the reallocation of office space.

“Are we going to get involved when they decide to move the residential neighborhood one block? Or if they change from 5 million to 3 million square feet of office space?” Walker asked fellow commissioners. “I think we’ll get to discuss and set those things with staff, rather than waiting until the development agreement comes up and we see what’s left.”

Kreider agreed that the threshold for commission involvement—what constituted a “major change” in the development agreement—should be outlined clearly.

A time for every property under Heaven . . . As one City Council staff member puts it, there is a season for everything and the season for Stratus Properties’ Bear Lake PUD should be summer. That’s not what the developer wants to hear, but that’s what the folks around City Hall are saying, even though the project is scheduled for a City Council hearing and vote today. It has been delayed several times already, with acquiescence from Stratus, so the PUD, which complies with the SOS ordinance, has now arrived at a politically inconvenient time. This week the Circle C Homeowners Association has joined with other neighborhood associations along the FM 1826 corridor in opposing the PUD. In a strongly worded letter to the Council, Ken Rigsbee, secretary-treasurer of CCHoA says the group’s vote against the PUD Tuesday night was unanimous. He says Stratus needs to donate land for an elementary school, outline specific development plans for all 1,200 acres the company owns within Circle C Ranch and ditch the “multi-family rental units.” CCHoA wants those units converted to “owner-occupied” townhomes or condominiums. He leaves open the possibility that “through additional negotiation, accommodations could be reached such that the CCHoA could ultimately support and endorse Stratus’ plans—but I don’t personally see that happening right now” . . . The lowdown on Dunkerley . . . At 66 years young, Betty Dunkerley has stepped away from her job as Assistant City Manager, but she’s thinking very strongly about making a run for the City Council. Dunkerley is officially “on a leave of absence,” but she says she was planning to retire in March, and will only be on that leave of absence until the retirement begins. “Frankly, I’ve had 17 years of working for the government and I’m really experienced,” in the way the city operates, she says. Dunkerley notes that she “helped save Beaumont when it was on the edge of bankruptcy,” and has been nationally recognized for work she has done in directing Austin’s financial services. Among her many tasks for City Manager Jesus Garza, Dunkerley was instrumental in crafting the deal between the city and Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), but recently she was the point person for the city on the contract amendment between Seton and Brackenridge, a position that brought her into conflict with Council Member Beverly Griffith. Dunkerley said yesterday she has not made a final decision, but added, “If I do jump into this I’ll do it systematically.” Because of the incumbent signature-gathering and the possibility that one or more of the current Council members may either not have enough signatures or not want to switch places, Dunkerley said she would delay a decision on which place to seek. She said she expects to make a final decision this week . . . Speed bumps head north… The City of Round Rock has launched a traffic-calming program to reduce cut-through traffic in neighborhoods. Those who are interested in details of the program can go to the city’s website at . . . Another Martin joins local government . . . Former City Attorney Andy Martin’ s brother Gary is now working in the County Attorney’s office. The younger Martin was local counsel to Koch Pipelines in the mid-90s. As for the former City Attorney, he still seems busy at City Hall.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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